Black square profile pics. #NotMyPresident. “11/9 is the new 9/11.” #StillWithHer.
The reality of what just happened is slowly synthesizing for many of us today, and the usual onslaught of social media symbolism, hashtaggery, and meme-sharing is a huge part of the conversation for many devastated and dumbfounded U.S. citizens (including myself) who just cannot fathom that we’ll be spending the next four years with Donald Trump in charge of the most critical decisions the country must make (with a conservative House and Senate to back him).
As we look for answers as a nation, folks are calling out all sorts of culprits for “how this happened”: America’s endemic and reactionary racism. Our appetite for entertainment over our quest for accurate facts. Our privilege of apathy. The death of the American Dream. Sexism and the patriarchy’s fear of losing control. The 2-party system. The global spread of nationalism and xenophobia. Islamaphobia. The media’s implicit cooperation and promotion of Trump, a direct result of the clicks and revenue that Trump content generated for publishers and networks. And closely related to that: Social. Media.
Because more than in any other election year, social media did define the political landscape. 62% of U.S. adults get their news from social media. People in the U.S. sent 1 billion Tweets about the election since the primary debates began in August of last year.
In 2016, candidates freely posted selfies and took feuds to social. Snapchat filters, emojis and GIFs were created to promote campaigns. Twitter bots arrived en masse to harass and push out false information. Native “Facebook-First” brands began to crop up and grow by millions of followers in matters of weeks (an enviable feat by industry standards) — purely by creating shareable (regardless of if they were factual) assets. Facebook Live streams were churned out by the thousands, dissecting and debating the political forecast, bringing viewers on the scene, and allowing users to join the conversation in real time. Politicians’ tweets — the good, the bad, and the mic-dropping — went viral. Quips from debates became social media anthems, hashtagged first online and then onto merchandise, graffiti, and spread out IRL. Secret Facebook groups, experimentation on emerging platforms, social-specific games and quizzes were all part of the 18-month+ conversation leading up to last night.
But how is it possible that none of these social media movements were enough to generate a win for the very candidate who kinda definitely should have harnessed the key audiences on those platforms. What?!?
1. After receiving criticism for suppressing conservative news, the Facebook algorithm underwent large updates in 2016, which the company claimed were intended to “best predict stories that you might personally find informative.” Many social media professionals (including myself) believe that this created a false sense of security or confidence for users. I only saw viewpoints that I would be predisposed to agree with, from like-minded friends in my feed. Thus, I was utterly assured of a Clinton triumph. Any other outcome seemed so, so far out of the realm of possibility. Bloomberg’s Cass R. Sunstein approached this problem in July, saying “Personalized Facebook experiences are a breeding ground for misunderstanding and miscommunication across political lines, and ultimately for extremism.” And as Max Read from Select All puts it, “Facebook has seemed both uninterested in and incapable of even acknowledging that it has become the most efficient distributor of misinformation in human history.”
2. Facebook’s recent newsfeed homogeneity is absolutely more dangerous with the proliferation of those FB-native political brand pages. (You know, all those pro-Bernie or anti-Hillary or pro-Trump photos and videos that your friend from high school who you haven’t seen in 8 years has been sharing each morning without any seeming desire to cite an original source?) Those have been really, really damaging to this election cycle. The New York Times assessed the danger and power of those “Hyperpartisan” pages in August. Compound that with A) an increased visibility for fake news, and B) millions of Americans’ apparent comfort with existing in and dialoguing amidst the post-fact era, and you have a significant social media problem — tons of noise, and very confused signals. Real journalism no longer matters to those who don’t “find it personally informative.”
3. Another social-specific problem this year? Incorrect (as it turns out) big data and polling stats permeated social all year long. The facts are digestible, quick, clicky, shareable — in short, polls make for perfect social content and are therefore low-hanging fruit for social media editors and managers at news outlets. But polls are not actually predictions. Polls cannot control voter turnout (which was down for key Clinton demos), highly-trusted polling sources on both sides were wrong, and it created a devastating gap.
4. Lastly, while there were indeed hundreds of influencers and celebrities who voiced their support for Clinton, much of it was too little too late. This election was close from the outset, and it reflected a divided nation’s fears. However, some high-powered celebrities refused to use their clout (or waited until the very last moment) to outwardly participate in the conversation this election year. In a country where pop culture, celeb zeitgeist, and reality TV rule (literally now rule, with respect to the latter), it is difficult for hard news organizations and politicians to command the focus of short attention-spanned citizens. Rock the Vote efforts and other attempts to galvanize and inspire crucial demographics on social were lacking in 2016. While Gaga, Miley, Beyonce, Madonna, Katy Perry, and many others voiced support for Clinton, much of it came quite recently. And celebs who chose to stay quiet even though they command millions of young and diverse fans took the heat: Taylor Swift was mum until she posted a non-partisan pic from her polling place on the day of the election; Kylie Jenner revealed her support for Clinton at 5pm on Election Day.
But what does it all mean?
Going forward, will social networks be expected to insert themselves more into governing the content that permeates and gets shared and re-shared? Will there be more curation of what we see, to allow for more diversity and more *actual* news and founded research? Will Facebook reel in strategy and silo users off to a lesser degree than they did this year? In four years, the #youngs will certainly have adopted a new platform or medium. So will they be able to inject it with more facts, more of a sense of community than one of anger, misleading memes, and caustic debate? Will mobile technology provide a new way for voters to participate? Could we submit our vote online or on a mobile device, the way we can submit our taxes and other important paperwork? Should stars who didn’t activate their fanbases feel more obligated next time around?
Or is this the future as we know it — democracy in action online? Is it OK for people to spend more time choosing which Instagram filter to use than they spend choosing our national, state, and local leaders? Is it our “right” to exercise apathy or misinformation on social, even after seeing how dire the consequences truly can be? If it’s fine for politicians or even the President of the United States of America to attack people on Twitter, does that mean we’re just going to give up on improving online safety and reducing harassment?
And what about our President-elect? His wife wrapped up a widely-mocked press conference last week in which she outlined her plan to tackle online bullying (Yes, yes. Ironic, since that is her husband’s favored mode of communication). Now that he will be ruling for four years as our commander-in-chief, will his UV-driving social currency burn out? Will the fascination and clicks diminish, and will news outlets and publishers untether themselves from his endless quest for attention? Or will we be drowning in a constant onslaught of #TrumpSocialContent until 2021?
As a social and digital media professional, it’s hard for me to pull myself away from the mantra of “creating engagement” and “getting clicks.” An image has been playing over and over in my head this morning: Barack and Michelle on January 20, having to face Donald and Melania and hand over the reins of democracy to them. It burns. Both because I interpret it as an enormous slap in the face to our country and our citizens, and because it’s my instinct to plan for moments like that and “optimize them for social.” How do we frame the Trump presidency on social media going forward? How do we take responsibility and make the conversation meaningful instead of clicky?
Today President Obama reminded millions of frightened Americans that “the path this country has taken has never been a straight line. We zig and zag.” The idea that social media showcases the best and the worst of our culture is not new. We zig and zag and push and pull on a continuum. If Facebook, Twitter, and the rest are at fault for much of the misinformation, faceless hatred, and this painful final result we’ve created for ourselves today…then we can turn the ship back around.
Because even if social media played a part in creating this tragedy, we can learn from it — starting right here, right now. And we still have the ability to use social for good and move out of the shadow that’s been covering the conversation during this big, uncivilized, harmful election season. Many of us have seen the memes comparing the contemporary American political climate to pre-Nazi Germany. I don’t fully disagree with the alarming similarities. But they didn’t have social media. I believe it would have helped. Today we have a vehicle for direct connection and reach, a resource for real-time news, ways to mobilize, and for commentary to be publicly documented and archived.
Even in the darkest days of this election cycle, the most hurtful and humiliating moments of the debate, bombshell after bombshell, we didn’t only fight with each other and lament. We laughed, we shared hilarious commentary, we helped guide each other to political action, we were able to immerse ourselves in important protests happening in different cities, we helped each other access information when it was available, we fetched the truth as red flags were triggered in our heads, and we had some extraordinarily important conversations.
We use social media for a diverse range of needs — communication, entertainment, distraction, information. On November 9, 2016, we are using it to process tremendous grief, regret, and alienation. And I have no doubt that my industry and my country will be studying what this means and how we can do a better job in the future. There is no other choice given our newly-elected leadership. Influential users need to speak up nice and early. Media handles need to decide if the clicks and Likes are actually worth it. Individuals need to pay earnest attention to what matters most, and use social to support truthful causes, protests, and exchanges year-round regardless of the election cycle. Platforms need to distribute coverage in a more open and responsible manner. Technology needs to catch up and provide other options to securely increase voter turnout. We have no other choice.
As Hillary put it today: “there are more seasons to come and there is still work to do.”